Saturday, February 16, 2019

"A Republic, If You Can Keep It"

I am heading out tomorrow for an overnight trip to Philadelphia with my family. Next to New York City, Philly is my favorite city on the east coast. I like to think of it as New York's drunken screwup younger brother, less successful but also fun to hang out with.

By all rights it should have been the nation's permanent capital. I often think of how much better off this nation would have been had the Federal District mandated by the Constitution had been placed outside Philadelphia instead of on the Potomac. Alas, political horse trading necessitated this, and in return for assuming the debts of the states as Hamilton preferred, the capital had to be located further south to placate the gang of Virginian slaveholders. So instead of having an organic capital city, America has an artificial simulacra of a capital, a place whose unrealness creeps me out every time I visit.

Philly, on the other hand, feels warm and all too human. The city having its status stolen from it seems to have resulted in a permanent state of anger and resentment. When Eagles fans boo Santa Claus that is the cry of a people who instead of living in the capital of the world's most powerful nation live in a grimy, declining city with far more people than economic opportunities.

You can still visit Independence Hall, of course. One great thing about Philly is how close all the relevant historical sites are to one another. I am not one to indulge in a Foundersgasm, but I will say I have always had a soft spot for Benjamin Franklin. How could I not? He was a traveller, thinker, writer, and lover of the grape. He left the straightjacket of his hometown to go make it on his own. Unlike the likes of Washington and Jefferson, he did not have wealth handed down to him, he had to make his own way in the world. Unlike Hamilton, he does not appear to have been turned into an asshole once he ascended the social ladder. (There, I said it.) Like Hamilton, he publicly turned against slavery.

One of my favorite Franklin anecdotes is that he was asked after the Constitutional Convention, which had been held under a cloak of secrecy, if America was to have a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied "A republic, if you can keep it."

This speaks to the fragility of the new government formed in Philadelphia. Historically democracy is the exception, not the norm. In American history the form of democracy where every person gets more exceptional still, extending back to 1965 at the very earliest.

I firmly believe that our democracy is facing a unique crisis. Even before the current despot ascended to the White House voter suppression made a striking comeback, validated by the courts. Yesterday brought news of a phony state of emergency, called to circumvent Congress's Constitutional role as the holder of the purse strings. The lack of direct action by the people of this country in response has been disheartening. Too many are so complacent or comfortable, unaware that the republic must be actively kept, not merely passively counted on.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Classic Music Videos: Joe Jackson, "Steppin' Out"

February is the worst month of the year by far. Winter has dragged on, and refuses to leave. The only holidays are either lame (President's Day) exploitative (Valentine's Day) or just plain awful (Super Bowl.) It means worrying about doing taxes and whether the furnace boiler will hold out.

In this most awful of months I retreat to my comforts. This means eating meatloaf and rice and beans, drinking bourbon (as I am doing as I write), and listening to 80s pop music. I especially like looking at old music videos, which conjure up my youth like little else.

Joe Jackson's vid for "Steppin' Out" certainly does the trick. The bouncy, fruity Casio synth line anchoring the song tells us that we have landed in unmistakably in 1982. In the video we see the strange 1980s obsession with the 1940s, as Jackson's wardrobe consists of a vintage tie and suspenders, only to change to a tux with a white tie. He plays a kind of narrator, playing the piano as a maid imagines the night she could have on the town with her boss's dress.

The setting is New York City, about to emerge from its 70s malaise to becoming the capital of World Money in the new neoliberal dawn. In that way the video is a very subtle kind of social critique, showing the intensification of class disparities as the Reagan-Thatcher revolution sets its teeth in. Jackson himself would soon announce that he was done making music videos, which was a real statement of rebellion at the time when they were becoming the preeminent art form.

"Steppin' Out" is a pretty little song, encapsulating that feeling of what it's like to move to the big city and going out on the town, feeling both quietly hopeful yet out of place. It certainly fits February, a month of quiet hope if there ever was one.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Avoiding the Middle Age Bitterness Trap

I'm getting through middle age by tapping into my inner Peter Falk

Hitting 40 did not seem like much of a milestone, but age 43 has suddenly brought all the middle-aged thoughts I thought were coming three years ago. They aren't all necessarily bad. I think all the time about how I've done a lot in my life, and that what I do for a living has had a positive impact on the world. I'm okay not being young anymore. The bad thoughts are the morbid ones, of course. At this point it's very likely that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows. The problem with having gained a renewed will to live in the past eight years is that death scares me a lot more than it used to. In my younger days I was pretty ambivalent about living. I have learned to enjoy life more fully and now I desperately don't want to have to give it up. Sometimes on my morning commute I hope that when I eventually go I'm more prepared for it.

At the same time, watching other middle-aged people around me has made me hyper-aware of the traps of middle age. The two big ones are bitterness and resentment, which usually come together. Middle age is when you have the harrowing realization that you have become what you are. In youth you tend to think of yourself becoming something, there is still room for self-invention, and still room to think that your faults will eventually fade. If you don't "make it" in your chosen field by your 40s, well, you're never going to make it. That can be a spur for bitterness and resentment.

For the vast the majority of us never achieve the things we dream, and our consumerist society is constantly pushing us to "dream big," which usually means a big disappointment. In that respect I am glad that I left academia at the age of 35, when I was still young enough to reinvent myself and recover from the mental blow that transition made. If I did so at 40 I wonder if I would feel so good about myself right now.

I have seen so many people succumb to bitterness and resentment in middle age, their souls wilted and withered. This form of self hate always ends up getting projected onto other people. It closes minds and closes hearts and deafens ears to the sufferings of others. Those who are frustrated at their position and feel let down by life inevitably derive satisfaction from seeing other people brought down to their level. If the people around them are not as miserable as they are, they will make it so. These are the poisonous gossips at work, the family members who engage in belittling behaviors, the tyrannical boss who goes out of their way to always make you feel small. 

What's especially frightening to me is that this form of middle aged dysfunction has been weaponized for political use. White men in their 50s were Trump's most loyal bloc, the group most likely to be resentful about their lives. Those emotions can be easily turned against the "other" who is then blamed for their situation. I was just talking to a friend who said a bunch of his formerly apolitical friends (also middle aged) suddenly became vocal Trump supporters. It makes sense to me, considering the appeals he makes to resentment and those most receptive to it.

So every day I tell myself not to succumb, and to try to throw a lifeline to the people I see drowning in an all-consuming bitterness. Sure I never became a tenured professor or published a book, but there are things in life a lot more important than that. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Old Dad's Records Podcast 36, Substitute Beatles

After a long hiatus brought on by an insane workload, illness, travel and a death in the family the Old Dad's Records Podcast is back! My inspiration came from a recent episode of the podcast The Projection Booth on The Rutles, the wonderful late 70s spoof on the Beatles. I'd already had Beatles on the brain due to talk around Peter Jackson restoring the old Let It Be documentary. On the pod I start with "Pleasant Valley Sunday" by the Monkees, the original Beatles imitators. After that I pull a vinyl copy of The Rutles soundtrack off my stack of old records. I end with a discussion of the new Guided By Voices album, showing that band has managed to stay interesting after all these years.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Billboard Top Ten Albums February 6, 1982)

It's been awhile since I've done a top ten, and I realized that I've never done an albums countdown. I chose 1982 because I tend to think of the winter of 1982 and the moment when the transition out of the 70s was being completed, especially in music. I think the albums on this list bear out my thesis. And now, on with the countdown!

10. The Cars, Shake It Up

The Cars are really the emblematic band for this moment in music history. They bridged the divide between the arena rock world and new wave, getting played both on the local rawk station and on MTV. The beat is all new wave nerves and the synths sound like they would be at home on a Human League record. This is not one of their stronger albums, it sort of sits between their early rocking high points and their pop takeover on Heartbeat City.

9. The Police, Ghost In The Machine

I've always loved the cover to this album, which speaks to a time when digital technology was new and cutting edge. My dad got a digital watch in 1982 that made all kinds of bleeps and bloops. I really thought we were living in the future. The album seems to reflect a certain fear of this new frontier, especially songs like "Spirits in the Material World" and Invisible Sun." The dark noises give way to a slight break in the clouds on "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," perhaps the best pure pop song the Police ever released.

8. Hall and Oates, Private Eyes

One shocking thing about this countdown is the lack of soul music. Hall and Oates are really the only vaguely soul music act in this top ten. In recent years Hall and Oates have had their reputations justifiably revived. Their music is long on craft with all kinds of subtle touches. "Private Eyes" might be one of their most straight-ahead hits, but "I Can't Go For That" has a sultry slink to it that sounded great coming out of the speakers of my parents' Chevy Malibu.

7. AC/DC, For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)

This album has got to rank among rock history's biggest disappointments. When AC/DC frontman Bon Scott died in the late 70s it seemed like the band was doomed. Then, in 1980, they dropped Back in Black, one of the top-selling albums of all time and a stone cold killer from top to bottom. As far as I am concerned, it's the only really good album the band was able to release after Scott's demise. This may have been a case of AC/DC's formula only yielding so much before the well ran dry. Where they were once supple, they are now flabby. Where they were once sly, they are now overblown.

6. Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna

Fleetwood Mac were THE definitive band of the late 1970s decadent cocaine malaise. It was only fitting that Stevie Nicks would go off on her own and have bigger hits outside of the band in a new decade with a New Objectivity driving culture, rather than the hair shaggy 70s aesthetic. In that respect it was perfect for her to team up with Tom Petty, who was a forward-looking rocker more in tune with the new wave than others. "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" is one of the great male-female duets of the decade. "Edge of Seventeen" has a high energy intensity lacking from her Fleetwood Mac tunes that's better suited to the new, go go decade.

5. Rolling Stones, Tattoo You

The last classic Stones record? Strange to say for an album made up of outtakes. It's kind of sad that the Stones have not managed to top it in the 37 years since. Their freshest stuff could not longer measure up to what they had tossed off in the 70s. There are some great songs on this album, and not just the hits. Of course, everyone mostly remembers "Start Me Up," one of their best all time songs and a real hip shaker. That kind of rhythm had all but disappeared from mainstream rock music by this point, and its absence has been a true loss. "Waiting On A Friend" is among their best ballads.

4. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hooked On Classics

OK, this one totally flummoxed me. I had no clue that an orchestral album hit the top ten in the 1980s. This is not a Mantovani record like the ones that charted back in the day, it's got an uptempo disco beat behind it. Strings had always been big in pop music, including in the aforementioned disco genre. The 80s would bring an end to that trend with the almighty synthesizer. While there's a touch of disco to this music, it sounds ideal for aerobics class, and thus very much of the new cultural turn.

3. Foreigner, 4

I have often thought of 1981-1982 as the last gasp of classic rock. Was MTV the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? I am not sure, but cock rockers like Foreigner sounded increasingly out of step with the times. However, on this record Foreigner managed to hold onto relevance by incorporating the harder, straighter, less shaggy sounds of the new decade. "Urgent" has an eletro-groove, as well as an all-time sax solo by the great Junior Walker. In this era the saxophone was ubiquitous and even the arena acts couldn't exist. Thomas Dolby, who had yet to blind anyone with science, was on the synths.

2. Journey, Escape

Journey's Escape album might be the magnum opus of classic rock's early 80s swan song. (It's either that or Rush's Moving Pictures.) Journey maintained the bard rock bedrock of the late 70s with the slick pop sheen necessary for the Reagan years. The power ballad had announced its world conquering presence with REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You," and Journey made it sweeter with "Open Arms." Add to that the beautifully moody "Who's Crying Now" and the hit "Still They Ride" and you've got a good record. When you factor in "Don't Stop Believing," one of the most blissful songs you can still hear on a classic rock station, you've got a stone cold classic. Play that song at midnight in a crowded bar and the punters will still belt it out.

1. J. Geils Band, Freeze Frame

Okay, now THIS makes me feel sentimental. "Centerfold" is the first pop song I remember hearing on the radio and loving. As a wee kindergartener I had no clue of its naughty nature. I could not get enough of the bouncy beat and catchy riff. The J Geils Band were a fun rock and roll band (as opposed to rock band), and so ideal for kids who liked to run around the basement with too much energy to spare. Like the other rock bands on the countdown, the group had adapted their sound in a more new wave direction, putting the keyboards front and center and the nervy beats beneath. While the sound (and album cover) is unmistakably of its time, put "Centerfold" or "Freeze Frame" on at a wedding and people will be on the dance floor.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

What Medicare For All Will Take

It is refreshing that in the year of our Lord 2019 that the default position of Democratic candidates for president on health care is universal health insurance. This is usually expressed as "Medicare for All," a smart branding, since it associates universal care with a popular government program. Of course, that phrase means different things to different people.

I have long hoped for this country to have universal health care, but watching the current debate over Medicare for All, I am not getting my hopes up. So many who support it make the typical mistake of assuming that because it's something that would benefit the masses, that the masses would automatically support it.

Historically, however, that has not been the case. When Harry Truman made the push in the 1940s, which failed and led to a strengthening of the employer-based model. In the 1990s Clinton's health care proposal went down in flames, leading to Democrats getting thrown out of office in the 1994 midterm. Obama managed to pass a major program that many folks criticize today for not going far enough. While that is true, it misses how political realities created massive headwinds. Obamacare barely made it through Congress, even in its weakened form. People forget that at the time it was not a popular piece of legislation, and Republicans used it, as in 1994, to take Congress.

So where were the masses who were "naturally" going to support something like this? Mostly on the sideline, or politically engaged AGAINST it. Whenever expanding coverage is proposed Republicans reply by saying "THEY want to take away YOUR insurance and make you take GOVERNMENT insurance instead." Conservatives, no matter their social class, tend to be very persuaded by that argument, as well as a lot of people in the middle. We all know that health insurers are awful, but polling consistently shows that a lot of Americans are reluctant to give up their current health coverage.

That fact was used ruthlessly by the health insurance industry in the 1990s, where their famous "Harry and Louise" propaganda ads helped turn the tide against health reform. In the 1930s and 1940s the AMA used doctors to crush universal coverage. Health care is a massive industry in America, accounting for 18% of the GDP. The people who profit from it are not simply going to have their power and wealth taken away from them. This is why Obama went out of his way to build bridges with health care interest groups, and probably why he succeeded where Clinton failed.

Beyond the fear that health insurance will get worse and machinations of the health care industry, moves to expand the welfare state have a tough road to hoe because they threaten white supremacy. The Republican argument I mentioned before appeals to the subconscious feeling among most white people that "government health care" means "taking money from people like us and giving it other people who don't deserve it." A lot of people who've read too many European Marxists and haven't looked at their own country's history have deluded themselves into thinking that white people will simply abandon this attitude because they stand to benefit from universal health care.

In any case, even if a Democrat wins in 2020, they will still need to get 60 votes in the Senate. No Republican will vote for Medicare For All, so the bill will be DOA unless Democrats grow a spine and suspend the filibuster. And if that is done Democratic Senators in more conservative states still might be afraid of losing reelection. The Republican party, like the health care industry, will fight this to their last breath. They also have a massive conservative media apparatus to fall back on to control the narrative.

I'm not saying this is impossible. What I am saying is that it is going to take a lot of work. Instead of assuming popular support, we need to be organizing people to fight for Medicare for All, and to be making the case to voters. Without a solid organization this effort will wilt in the face of the inevitable conservative and industry opposition. As long as too many on the left want to be right, as opposed to powerful, nothing is going to change. It's time to stop talking to ourselves and long past time to be making the case to others.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

What "I'm Socially Liberal, But Fiscally Conservative" Means

If you have lived a few years on this earth and have rubbed shoulders with educated, middle-class suburban white people you've probably heard someone say "I'm socially liberal, but economically/fiscally conservative." The person uttering these words will typically have a self-satisfied look on their face, as if this incredibly pedestrian statement is somehow profound.

The people who say this are not deep thinkers, contrary to their pretensions. They are really trying to find some bullshit to cover up their self-interested politics. What they are saying is that they are fine with weed, abortion, and gay rights, but are also against anything that would lead to greater economic equality. Affordable housing, healthcare, and higher education are all off the table. After all, those things cost money. Housing and school segregation also do not offend the sensibilities of these "social liberals." What these people are saying essentially is that they are okay with progressive ideas as long as they don't do anything to challenge their class and race privilege.

Now it appears that this crowd has a presidential candidate in the form of Howard Schultz. The former Starbucks CEO calls himself a Democrat, but wants to limit Social Security. Like the rest of the billionaire class, he is cocooned from criticism and incapable of understanding of how regular people live their lives. The "I'm socially liberal, but fiscally conservative" crowd doesn't really care, though. They all think that they are potential millionaires, and that they are on the winning team. I fear many of them may pull the lever for Schultz in 2020.

Of course, this could really just be a ploy to threaten the Democratic party into nominating a more moderate candidate who reflects the policy priorities of the wealthy donor class. The thing is, Schultz has not contemplated that the people who follow his philosophy are just as likely to be Republicans as Democrats. I don't know how many people I've known over the years who have mentioned their support for abortion rights and gay marriage and still pulled the lever for the Republicans. They proclaim these things to assuage their guilt for voting for Bible-thumping Christian dominionists and alt-right adjacent bigots so that they can have tax cuts.

While there's all this talk of a social democratic resurgence in the Democratic Party and the hardening of Republicans under Trump, not enough attention is paid to the garden variety dipshits in the middle who say "I'm socially liberal, but economically conservative." These people are the ones who swing elections. No wonder we're screwed.